Racial disparities in the restaurant labor force of BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport are hurting African-American employees and contributing to poverty in Baltimore, according to a study released Monday by the national labor organization Unite Here.
Officials with AirMall USA, which subcontracts concessions operations at the airport for the Maryland Aviation Administration, rebutted the findings.
The study, which Unite Here produced in collaboration with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, found African-American employees disproportionately work in low-wage positions at fast-food chains and in the back of airport restaurants as dishwashers and cooks, while white employees tend to fill higher-paying, front-of-house jobs as bartenders and servers.
Based on a survey of 437 employees of BWI concessions contractors, the study also found 83 percent of the black employees live in Baltimore. A separate wage survey of 180 employees found a median hourly wage for nontipped workers of $8.50, which the study concluded served to "perpetuate rather than alleviate poverty" in the city.
The study specifically calls out AirMall USA for allowing racial disparities to exist, even though AirMall subcontracts BWI's concessions to independent businesses that make their own hiring decisions.
Brett Kelly, vice president of AirMall Maryland, said in a statement that the claim of racial disparities among BWI concessions employees was "simply unfounded."
"The concession program at BWI Marshall has brought new businesses to the airport, resulting in more jobs and opportunities for everyone in our region," he said. "We stand behind the merits of the program and our strong track record. To attempt to make this a race issue is careless and unsubstantiated."
Last year, AirMall commissioned a wage survey that it said found its subcontractors' employees make more than similar employees who work nearby, with the average hourly food and beverage worker at BWI earning $11.62 per hour.
It cited Bureau of Labor Statistics data that showed similar workers in Anne Arundel County, where the airport is located, made an average of $8.67 per hour.
Jonathan Dean, an airport spokesman, said one of BWI's "primary objectives is to have a diverse, inclusive" concessions program that offers opportunities under the Federal Aviation Administration's Airport Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program, which requires airports to provide business opportunities to minority companies. Such companies currently represent more than 36 percent of all concessions sales at BWI, he said.
The airport also has about 1,500 concessions employees, Dean said, more than three times the number surveyed in the Unite Here study.
Unite Here, which advocates for hospitality workers nationwide, does not represent the concessions workers it surveyed, though it has been working to help BWI employees negotiate for wage increases.
Gerald Stansbury, president of the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP and author of the study's introduction, called the findings "unconscionable" in a statement.
Stansbury said the report is meant to help in "diagnosing the problem" of racial disparity at the airport, and that the state should consider ending its contract with AirMall unless something changes.
"That this inequality should exist in a facility named in honor of Thurgood Marshall — one of this country's most influential leaders in the struggle for equal rights — makes it even more egregious," he said.